09/23/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

If Netanyahu Talks Iran, It Is About Israel

As the world prepares for this week's annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Iran's nuclear program will again take center stage. This could be useful, but for the fact that it's once again Israel that will be leading that charge. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just announced that, as in recent years, Iran will be the focus of his speech before fellow world leaders.

Whether on Iran or Syria, Israel does itself no favors by championing disarmament or advocating military action. Last month, he was publicly threatening retaliation against Syria, and last week he was urging Members of Congress to support the use of force. And yet, we were admonished, "This is not about Israel." American Jewish organizations (a.k.a. the pro-Israel lobby) delivered the same double message to Capitol Hill. And remember, Israel is the only Middle East nation with an existing nuclear capability, with good cause, but with an unlikely cachet.

More recently, Netanyahu has conflated a military response to Syria's chemical weapons use with the urge to project a credible deterrent against Iran. According to this modified domino theory, if Iran sees Syria wiggle out of punishment, then the new government in Tehran will feel emboldened to proceed with developing its own nuclear weapons capability.

The domino theory was a costly premise for the Vietnam War during the bipolar Cold War era, and in today's free-agent Middle East it's even irrelevant. The key to preventing Iran lies not in proving Washington's willingness to act, but in taking action. This means keeping up economic sanctions and denying Iran all possible ingredients for its program.

If Iran crosses a real red line -- not a "threshold" or "breakout capacity" or any other new goalposts we think up -- the United States or Israel must and will act, if at all possible. Meanwhile, raising alarms about the amount of highly enriched uranium, the fortifying of production facilities, the pairing of a warhead to a delivery system -- these successive points of no return only muddle the very case Netanyahu claims to be making. Especially, with Washington's diminished influence post-Iraq, we must also consider that our best efforts may only slow and not dismantle Iran's program.

Since the infamous 1980s Iran-Contra debacle, we should have learned that trying to identify and empower Iranian "moderates" is a fool's errand. First of all, in the shadow of Ayatollah Khameini and his minions, moderation in Iran is a relative and limited term. Former President Rafsanjani, one of the regime's leading moderates, was a key architect of Hezbollah's rise and of the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires during the 1990s. And Iran has pursued its nuclear program throughout.

Secondly, however we try to help moderates and reformers on the ground, anything we do is likely to be counter-productive. During the short-lived Green Revolution a few years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized from various corners for not providing more assistance or speaking out forcefully to support the demonstrators. But, any Iranians who receive U.S. training or support are immediately thrown in jail and exposed as American "spies." And a stronger response from the United States would have undermined the legitimacy of the Green movement, whose activists may have finally succeeded with the election of a (relatively) moderate new President, Hassan Rouhani. Without overt support from the United States.

A rapprochement with Iran may or may not slow the nuclear time bomb, but even Rouhani will be unable to take any steps if this is seen as a concession to the United States, let alone to the Prime Minister of Israel. Which brings us to this month's opening of the UN General Assembly.

Syria is not about Israel, if one argues that it's about Iran seeing the United States back up its rhetoric with a credible military threat. But, as Netanyahu will remind us, Iran is about Israel, and by association, so is Syria. This undermines any effort to contain or deny Iran and Syria their weapons of mass destruction, which seems bad for the United States and for Israel. It reinforces the widespread notion that Washington does Israel's bidding in the Middle East, and it provides little incentive for Western nations to follow suit.

To really worry about U.S. "credibility" in the Middle East, one needs to appreciate its value and its sources. The value lies in delivering lasting agreements like the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, and any potential deal with the Palestinians; in disarming dangerous regimes; in minimizing the damage and increasing the capacity for real democratic change in the region; and so on.

The path to achieving or restoring America's credibility is not through using force, whether or not at the apparent behest of the State of Israel and the Jewish community. It is by showing that America is an effective player through its action (military or otherwise), non-action, and compromise when useful or necessary. Results -- and success -- confer the highest form of credibility, especially in a region whose wildest fears and suspicions were confirmed by a decade of U.S. mobilization in and around Iraq.

For all its indispensable weapons, Israel's greatest strategic asset is the credibility of the United States of America, and not the bait-and-switch of temporal red lines, kitschy cartoon bombs, and UN speeches geared to impressing Republicans in America and Israelis back home. If Netanyahu wants to maximize this resource, he might think about building up a strong Palestinian partner for peace rather than convincing the nations of the world that Iran really is all about Israel.